by James Mannion
I’d like to share something I’ve ruminated on many times in recent years, but I haven’t ever really taken the time to articulate.
Often, we talk about there being ‘two sides of the oracy coin’: learning to talk, and learning through talk. We might define these as follows:
Learning to talk (or learning how to talk)
This involves instructing young people in various aspects of spoken language and communication – the physical, linguistic, cognitive and social and emotional dimensions of the Oracy Skills Framework.
This we often describe as ‘oracy education’, and here we can see oracy as a curriculum concern – where spoken language is treated not just as a means to an end, but as a ‘fit object of educational knowledge’ in and of itself (Wilkinson, 1965).
Learning through talk
This includes student activities such as paired talk, philosophical inquiry, debating, presenting, “talk detectives” – as well as ‘teacher moves’ such as building dialogue, questioning, using talking points, cold calling, think-pair-share…
This we often describe as ‘dialogic teaching and learning’, and here we can see oracy as a pedagogical concern – where spoken language is recognised and treated as ‘a condition of learning in all subjects’ (Wilkinson again)
To reiterate: oracy is both a curricular and a pedagogical concern. However, this is often not reflected in the way schools organise or think about the curriculum.
Curriculum as disciplinary knowledge
In the current inspection framework, Ofsted defines curriculum in terms of intent, implementation and impact. As we can see in the following excerpts, under each of these headings, curriculum is viewed as being synonymous with disciplinary subject knowledge, measured through subject-based exams:
“learners study the full curriculum. Providers ensure this by teaching a full range of subjects for as long as possible, ‘specialising’ only when necessary”
“teachers have good knowledge of the subject(s) and courses they teach… teachers present subject matter clearly, promoting appropriate discussion about the subject matter they are teaching”
“learners develop detailed knowledge and skills across the curriculum and, as a result, achieve well. Where relevant, this is reflected in results from national tests and examinations…”
This is not new. For hundreds of years, schools have been organised around subject disciplines – especially at secondary, but in primary also.
But this idea – that curriculum is synonymous with disciplinary subject knowledge – has unintended consequences. It means that other kinds of knowledge are not recognised within the curriculum.
As we have seen, oracy is both a pedagogical and a curricular concern. So perhaps we should do more to recognise and treat oracy as a curriculum concern in the day-to-day running of schools.
That is, in every year group at primary, and within every subject discipline at secondary, curriculum planning should explicitly set out how every learner will develop a rich repertoire of knowledge and skills relating to spoken language and communication.
Why should we treat oracy as a curriculum concern?
Speaking and listening are often described as “skills”. For example, they are often lumped into an assorted category of “soft skills”, “employability skills” or the dreaded “21st century skills” alongside things like critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity. This association is also reflected in the very name of the ‘Oracy Skills Framework’.
But there’s a problem with defining speaking and listening as “skills”.
To begin with, there is a significant body of knowledge that underpins the development of spoken language and communication. We can see this in the Oracy Skills Framework itself, which should perhaps really be called the Oracy Knowledge and Skills Framework.
In each of the four categories, we can see various forms of knowledge. There are declarative, “know-that” elements – appropriate vocabulary choice, knowledge of rhetorical techniques, giving reasons to support views and so on. There is also knowledge of the framework itself:
- knowing that oracy is far more complex than “speaking and listening”, and that we can think about oracy as having four ‘dimensions’: physical, linguistic, cognitive and social/emotional
- knowing what each these dimensions consist of
- knowing that, with practice, we can get better at using each of these features of spoken language and communication
- knowing what things like “register” and “grammar” mean in this context. (By the way, you can find a version of the Oracy Skills Framework with a glossary here).
And there are procedural, “know-how” components – turn-taking, tonal variation, time management – things that we might reasonably describe as “skills”.
The trouble with defining speaking and listening as ‘skills’
Of course, an important aspect of oracy education is the direct teaching of skills, akin to the direct teaching of the skills needed to do maths, carry out science experiments, paint pictures, play football, cook meals and so on. It’s not just knowledge about what makes good speeches or what makes groups function that students need; it also involves modelling, guiding, practicing, and giving and receiving constructive feedback on actual performance.
But even here, the word “skill” does not come close to capturing the transformative power of spoken language.
The Cambridge English dictionary defines “skill” as “an ability to do an activity or job well, especially because you have practised it.”
To my mind, this summons up things like riding a unicycle, or painting impressionist landscapes with oils, or plastering a wall perhaps. Things that are hard to do at first, but look deceptively easy when done by an expert.
In some ways, oracy is similar. For example, young people (and many adults) often find it incredibly difficult and anxiety-inducing to stand at the front of the room and deliver a speech. And experts do make this look easy. We could say the same of other aspects of oracy such as debating, chairing a meeting or making small talk with a stranger at a bus stop.
But there is a key difference as well. I can’t ride a unicycle, paint with oils or plaster a wall – but I don’t feel that my life is particularly diminished by my inability to do these things. Also, this inability is a choice – I have no doubt that I could learn to do these things if I wanted to, or at least to get better at them than I am now.
In contrast, if you don’t learn how to speak and listen effectively in a range of contexts, this will adversely affect you for the rest of your life in a variety of ways. It will affect the “first impressions” people form of you. It will determine whether you shine or clam up in an interview. It will affect your ability to make friends, to meet romantic partners, to establish and sustain healthy relationships with friends and family members. It will affect your ability to work with others, to persuade people of something they have never considered before, or to resolve or de-escalate conflicts – to name just a few.
This lack of skills or ability is not a choice, but an effect of lost chances to perceive and practice oracy skills. Tragically, this lack of opportunity often becomes a set of self-limiting beliefs that can remain with people for the rest of their lives. They say things like “You’d never get me up on stage” or “I can’t just walk up to a stranger and strike up a conversation – it would be excruciating”.
Why is this? In what way are the “skills” of speaking and listening different to riding a unicycle, painting with oils or plastering a wall? To answer this, I’ll draw briefly on my doctoral research, if you’ll indulge me.
Oracy is transformative
From 2010-2014, I had the incredible privilege to be part of a team tasked with designing and teaching a Learning Skills curriculum. The school invested a huge amount of curriculum time in this – the pupils took part in more than 400 lessons over a 3-year period, from Year 7 to Year 9.
There were many aspects to this curriculum, but it was very largely an oracy-based curriculum. Paired talk, group talk, philosophical inquiries, formal and informal debates, presentations galore – you name it, we threw the kitchen sink at it.
To cut a long story short, those young people went on to achieve the best set of exam results that school had ever seen. And it was especially beneficial for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – the disadvantage gap closed from the bottom up, almost completely (Mannion, McAllister & Mercer 2018).
We asked the pupils whether they felt Learning Skills helped them learn more effectively in other subjects – and if so, how. Here are some of their responses:
‘Learning Skills has helped me so much. It’s taught me to stand up for myself and that what I want to say is important. I have found my voice and I think harder than I ever have in using the right language.’
‘The thing I am most proud of this year is the “Who am I” project because I learnt how to stand up in front of a big group of people confidently.’
‘The thing I am most proud of from my first year at Sea View is confidence because I’m a lot smarter [and] I can speak up more.’
‘Now I have the courage to speak in all of my classes.’
’Learning Skills has helped me learn better in subjects because I’ve got a lot more confident.’
As indicated by the phrases in bold type, a clear pattern emerged from this study: the explicit and relentless focus on oracy education – the fact that we treated oracy as a curriculum to be learned and mastered, rather than simply as a pedagogical choice – developed their confidence. This then spilled over into other areas of their lives – including, but not limited to, learning in other subjects. (They also often spoke and wrote about how this confidence transformed their relationships with their peers and family members).
The message is clear. The reason speaking and listening are different to other “skills” is the confidence that emerges through learning to speak and listen effectively, and the way in which this confidence positively impacts other aspects of life.
When a young person (or adult) learns how to:
- address a large audience, drawing on a range of rhetorical techniques to persuade them of something they had never considered before…
- effectively chair a meeting…
- make small talk with strangers…
- really listen to people, and make them feel listened to and understood…
- use humour to connect and make friends with a wide range of people…
- take part in a formal structured debate and devastate their opponent with the deft use of a counterargument…
When we develop the ability to do such things with confidence and flair, it is utterly transformative. It changes the way we feel about ourselves. It changes the way in which other people see us. It changes the way in which we relate to friends and family members. It changes our ideas about what we might go on to do in the future.
This goes way beyond simply acquiring a practised skill. Developing the ability to speak and listen effectively is a form of self-actualisation. It makes us bigger somehow – not physically, but more fully realised. Becoming more confident is a process of growing into yourself – of becoming more fully yourself, and becoming more comfortable in your own skin. It allows us to connect with others – a vital source of mental wellbeing. It enables us to communicate our needs and desires, and therefore to have them met. It enables us to realise the potential we each have to “put a dent in the universe”, as Steve Jobs so memorably put it.
This is reflected in another quote from the Learning Skills study, from an interview with Zena, a Year 8 student:
“When you’re in Learning Skills you learn how to do things that you can use in other lessons. And you learn how to be more confident and what you learn sticks with you, and teaches you to act the same in other lessons.
I was really disappointed when I found out that we aren’t going to have Learning Skills next year. [NB: The Year 9 curriculum was being discontinued the following year because GCSEs were being dropped down a year] But then I thought back to last year, and I thought about everything I’ve learned and how I can use that in lessons. And it kind of sticks with you and then it becomes a part of you.”
I love this quote because it captures this idea that education is a process of self-actualisation – of getting ‘bigger’ and becoming more fully realised as a person, as a consequence of things “sticking with you and becoming a part of you”.
What’s more: such things remain a part of us long after the disciplinary knowledge crammed for an exam has been forgotten.
This is why it’s so important that we treat oracy seriously as a curriculum concern. If we leave such things to chance, we impair the crucial ability of young people to grow and flourish and thrive as people. And anyone can learn these things – regardless of their ability to demonstrate learning of disciplinary subject knowledge under exam conditions.
Conversely, when we do explicitly set out to develop these abilities – especially in a world that sometimes feels as though it’s tearing itself apart at the seams – we tip the balance in the direction of individual and societal flourishing.
This may all sound rather grand. But I really do think it is as important as all that.
I’m not suggesting that we treat oracy education as a bolt-on to the curriculum, or that we should add it to the never-ending list of things teachers are expected to teach. (Oracy skills can readily be taught and practised in parallel with curriculum learning. There is much to talk about in curriculum subjects!)
I’m suggesting that the development of knowledge and skills relating to spoken language and communication should be considered the beating heart of the curriculum, and everything else should revolve around that.
With thanks to Lyn Dawes and Neil Mercer for their helpful comments and revisions.
Wilkinson, A. (1965). Spoken English. Birmingham, University of Birmingham Press.
Mannion, J., McAllister, K., Mercer, N. (2018). The Learning Skills curriculum: raising the bar, closing the gap at GCSE. Impact, the Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching. Available at: https://my.chartered.college/impact_article/the-learning-skills-curriculum-raising-the-bar-closing-the-gap-at-gcse.